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March 16, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Special season finally ends for Palo Alto Special season finally ends for Palo Alto (March 16, 2005)

by Keith Peters

For only the second time in 33 games, the Palo Alto boys' basketball team had nothing to celebrate.

This occasion, however, was different than the first. This loss hurt more. It not only ended Paly's season at 31-2, but the prep careers of its seniors.

Thus, the locker room at ARCO Arena in Sacramento was a somber place Saturday following Palo Alto's numbing 55-35 loss to Oak Ridge in the Northern California Division II championship game.

Paly coach Peter Diepenbrock spent a moment talking to his players, trying his best to put a positive spin following his team's worst loss of a remarkably successful season.

"I told them whether we lose in the NorCal or state championship game, it's still sad when it's over," Diepenbrock related. "It's sad when we don't get together every day and do what we love to do."

Then it was the seniors' turns to talk.

"The seniors expressed themselves," Diepenbrock said. "They pretty much told the underclassmen to make sure you appreciate this experience of being on the team because it'll be over before you know it."

For seniors Brian Baskauskas, Greg Walder, Martin Mouton, Nathan Ford and Amar Miglani, this was their final time wearing a Paly uniform. Most hung their heads on bench in the final moments as the third-seeded Trojans (30-4) from nearby El Dorado Hills put the finishing touches on their shockingly easy win over the top-seeded Vikings.

Baskauskas, for one, tried to put the disappointing loss behind him as quickly as possible.

"I think all of us will remember this season the rest of our lives," said Baskauskas, headed for Amherst University in the fall. "We won league and CCS titles, won two NorCal games . . . there's a lot we're going to take from this season than this loss."

The positives clearly outweighed the negatives this season. To start, Paly's 31 wins tied the school record set by the undefeated 1993 state championship team. Baskauskas and injured guard Jeremy Lin shared MVP honors in the SCVAL De Anza Division. The Vikings won 18 straight games this season and went 21-0 at home since a season-ending loss in the 2003 NorCal tournament.

Despite the season-ending injury to Lin in the CCS finals, Paly roared into the NorCal championship game following a 62-44 romp over Golden Valley and a 71-57 stroll past Chico last Thursday. Baskauskas and junior Steven Brown scored 38 points each in those triumphs and the Vikings most often moved the ball up and down the court with ease.

Against Oak Ridge, it was a completely different story. Paly was no longer in its comfortable, cozy gym and the Vikings found themselves further stressed by a trapping, double-teaming Oak Ridge defense that featured tall and physically imposing players.

"That defense that they played, along with their size (6-9, 6-7, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3) . . . that was a tough thing to overcome," Diepenbrock said. "I think we were a little tense. We seemed very, very tentative."

Playing on the cavernous home court of the NBA's Sacramento Kings might have had something to do with that, along with Oak Ridge's defensive pressure that forced Palo Alto into a season-worst 24 turnovers.

The Trojans' first two baskets came after steals, setting the tone of the game.

"Giving them so many easy baskets just killed us," Diepenbrock said. "We just had too many turnovers and never got a rhythm going."

Palo Alto shot a season-low .318 from the field and made just seven of 23 three-point attempts. The Vikings got to the free-throw line just once and missed both attempts.

For Palo Alto, it was the ultimate meltdown at the worst possible time.

"I'm disappointed that we didn't get to show what we are capable of doing," said Diepenbrock. "Oak Ridge did a good job of cutting off our passing lanes. They seemed relaxed and in a comfort zone, while we were nervous. They're physically imposing and we didn't take care of the basketball. We were too careless with a lot of passes."

Facing a zone press and a 2-3 zone defense unlike any other this season, Palo Alto had the ball stolen 16 times. The Vikings, who averaged 16.2 steals of their own this season, finished with five.

Baskauskas, who averaged 17 points a game this season, had only one shot attempt in the first quarters as the Vikings got up only seven.

"We just didn't get up many shots," Baskauskas said. "I didn't get up many shots. We really had problems executing our game plan against their defense."

Paly went scoreless for the final 4:30 of the first quarter, but got to within 26-20 after back-to-back three-pointers by Baskauskas. He finished with four treys, tying a NorCal Division II single-game playoff record.

Paly, which turned the ball over 14 times in the first half that resulted in 11 points, gave up a steal and another layin and Oak Ridge grabbed a 30-20 lead at halftime.

Paly junior Brad Lehman cut that deficit to 30-22 on a layin to open the second half, but Paly would get no closer. A 7-0 run by Oak Ridge gave the Trojans a 41-24 advantage at the end of the third quarter. They opened the fourth period with five unanswered points for a 46-24 lead. At that point, Paly's dream season was over.

There was speculation that Palo Alto would have handled Oak Ridge's pressure better had Lin been available. Not only was Lin's ballhandling missed in beating the Trojans' trapping defense, but so too was his ability to penetrate the lane and create open shots for his teammates.

Certainly, had Lin not suffered a fractured ankle a week earlier, Saturday's game most likely would have been closer.

"It's so hard to say what would have happened," Diepenbrock said. "But, he does make us very special against pressing teams."

Oak Ridge coach Steve Scott agreed.

"Any time you lose a point guard of that caliber, it's going to hurt," Scott said. "He's such an unbelievable player."

Lin will be back next season, along with fellow starters Cooper Miller and Brown. Lehman will move into the starting lineup.

"The juniors have a lot of pride," Diepenbrock said. "They're definitely going to want to get back here."

As for the seniors?

"We've had a great run," Diepenbrock said. "We accomplished a lot of our goals. I don't think there's anyone here who's not very, very proud of the season we had."

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